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Some birds sing, others pound a drum

123rf.comBe glad pileated woodpeckers rarely find homes suitable for drumming. Their drumming and calls are unmistakable both in volume and deep sound.

Forest and field are filled with a great variety of avian sounds this time of year.

Meadowlarks remind us why they were selected to represent the state of Oregon. Their flute-like song is captivating.

Black-headed grosbeaks fill the woodlands with what at times feels like an overly loud song composed of slurred notes reminiscent of a reveler who has over-indulged a bit.

Then there are a myriad of other calls, cheeps, chips and songs that overlay these performers in the spring and summer chorus.

All these sounds are vocalizations, their voice if you will. Birds produce other sounds as well. Special feathers in some species vibrate producing sound. The tail of a male Anna’s hummingbird produces a seductive pop during the courtship dive. Snipe do something similar high over the marsh. Wing feathers of nighthawks and rufous hummingbirds also produce distinctive sounds.

Then there are the woodpeckers. The familiar drilling sound spells trouble for beetle larva tunneling beneath the bark or in wood. In addition to securing a meal and constructing a home, drilling or rather drumming is used to communicate with others.

Flickers announce their territory and attract mates by pounding on trees or dead limbs with just the right acoustic properties. A rich hollow sound carries well, and once located the flicker will repeatedly use its selected instrument to loudly announce its amorous and territorial message far and wide. If a flicker has selected a metal gutter or roof fixture on your home instead of a tree limb to drum, I am sorry. If you value sleep until the sun has at least risen far enough to provide some warmth on a chilly morning, you are out of luck. The eastern horizon showing the promise of another day with a faint glow is all the encouragement that a flicker needs. Once chosen, there is little the homeowner can do to discourage the male. They are tenacious. Be patient. The performance typically lasts only a couple of weeks.

You can identify some woodpeckers by the drumming. Once familiar with the drumming of a flicker, the drumming of a diminutive downy woodpecker is faster and higher-pitched. Then there is the pileated woodpecker, our largest woodpecker. Just be glad these woodpeckers rarely find homes suitable for drumming. The drumming and calls are unmistakable both in volume and deep sound.

The most distinctive drumming is produced by sapsuckers. They are percussion virtuosos. While most woodpeckers simply produce a string of rapidly delivered whacks, sapsuckers are more musical. There is a pattern to their drumming. The common sapsucker in the valley is the red-breasted sapsucker, a stunning bird with a carmine red hood. Red-naped and Williamson’s sapsuckers can be found at higher elevations and to the east.

Drumming consists of three parts. The first is a longer series lasting about a half second followed immediately by two briefer series of taps, “lllllllllllll—llll--llll.” Although not loud, the distinctive performance travels well in the forest. Who needs a voice when a unique drum solo works just as well? Sapsuckers do vocalize, but it is a soft, wheezy call that is easily overlooked.

Stewart Janes is a retired biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.